His projects as an actor and producer had taken him around the world. But while developing his feature directorial debut, Adam Saunders kept returning to his roots.
Specifically, his indie comedy Dotty and Soul enabled the Dallas native to affectionately poke fun at his own upbringing with a satire about cancel culture, corporate greed, and socioeconomic inequality.
“When I was writing this story and thinking about where I wanted to set things, it always came back to Texas,” Saunders said. “Then I made it specific to Dallas. My brain went home.”
The film, which debuts this week in theaters and on digital platforms, stars Saunders as Ethan, a brash and flamboyant entrepreneur whose self-driving car company in partnership with some Highland Park bigwigs looks to manipulate public transportation into big profits. But after a social-media scandal, he’s prompted to partner with elderly snack-cart vendor Dotty (Leslie Uggams), who changes his perspective while prompting a journey toward comeuppance and redemption.
Saunders based the Dotty character on a beloved childhood caregiver who rode the bus almost every day to his Richardson home. Plus, he had friends growing up who lived in the Park Cities.
“The dichotomy of Dallas became a character in the film,” he said. “I know the people and like the people.”
Filming took place mostly in Oklahoma—due to favorable tax incentives outside of Texas, Saunders says—in March 2020 before being shut down for almost two years because of the pandemic.
If the premise sounds similar to the 1983 comedy Trading Places, which starred Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy, Saunders doesn’t mind.
“It was one of my primary inspirations and one of my favorite movies growing up,” Saunders said. “It was also talking about these bigger social issues and was very brave. It was such a popular movie because it was fun and handled it with a light touch. I wanted to tell that kind of a throwback story.”
After graduating from Richardson High School, Saunders earned a drama degree from Duke University and a master’s from Yale. He launched a theater company in between.
He’s been working primarily as a film producer for more than a decade, most recently on the Hulu feature Darby and the Dead, but he sees his new project as an opportunity to expand creatively.
“I felt like I wanted to tell my own stories, and that I was only producing for external reasons,” he said. “That’s similar to Ethan, and then he learns to ultimately do what’s in your heart.”
Saunders is already working on his second directorial effort, Re-Election, a comedy about a man who returns to high school after 25 years to avenge his defeat in an election for senior-class president that sent his life into a downward spiral. That film, which is set in Richardson, is shooting in Louisiana.
“Dallas absolutely shaped who I am as an artist. It’s such a community-based place where you know people personally,” Saunders said. “That’s something that’s part of these stories.”
Dotty and Soul is available on most streaming providers beginning Friday, May 19.